Film Room
Analysis beyond the numbers

Film Room: Steelers Defense

Pittsburgh Steelers defense
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Almost all of the league's elite defenses have a distinctly unique identity. New England thrives in aggressive man coverage. San Francisco is a proponent of wide-9 defensive ends with their talent-loaded front four, held together in the middle by an elite cover linebacker in Fred Warner. Baltimore, despite a questionable run defense, is one of the best units in the league because of how well they keep offenses guessing with their endless array of creative coverages and fluid fronts.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, perhaps quietly, are among that elite group with their own flare. The third-ranked overall defense and fourth-ranked pass defense per DVOA, the Steelers' identity can be attributed to how they send pressures and manipulate the middle of the field with their safeties, particularly from two-deep safety shells.

To dive even further into the niche of their identity, the Steelers like sending their nickel (or apex, depending on the formation) defender, often from the wide side of the field. Since they play out of two-high shells quite often anyway, it's not difficult for them to sprinkle in blitzes from the slot area while still having a defender over the top to cap the slot receiver. This is especially true against teams that like condensed formations, such as the Rams and Cardinals. Capping the receiver directly can be a bit of a tell that a blitz is coming, but with how effectively the Steelers mix up coverages and how talented their safeties are, they can often execute well enough regardless.

Here is a simple example of Pittsburgh blitzing the nickel from the field against Arizona last week. The Steelers come out in a two-high shell with their front set away from the strength of the offense (under). Since Arizona has their passing strength to the field in a tight formation, Pittsburgh can cheat their safeties over toward the passing strength, allowing safety Terrell Edmunds (34) to comfortably sit over the slot receiver at about 10 yards. When the ball is snapped and slot corner Mike Hilton (28) fires off toward the quarterback, Edmunds is already in position to cap the slot receiver vertically and buy enough time for the blitz to get home.

The Colts spread out their passing strength into the field in this clip, but the same principle applies for the Steelers defense. The safety (Edmunds, 34) walks over to cap the slot receiver while the nickel cornerback (Hilton, 28) fires off the snap to blitz. By the time backup quarterback Brian Hoyer gets to the top of his dropback after the play fake, there is a blitzing nickelback diving at his feet while his slot receiver is getting squeezed down on over the middle.

The nickelback is not always the one to get sent on the blitz, though. Be it a game plan-specific decision or an adjustment to the offense shifting around the formation, Pittsburgh has shown they will blitz whoever is in the "apex" position over/near the slot receiver.

Before the Bengals send a receiver in motion, the Steelers don't look to be gearing up for a blitz on the boundary side of the field. Both safeties appear to be lining up 12 to 14 yards deep while the nickelback (Hilton, 28) is a few yards off instead of up at the line of scrimmage as if he were to blitz. It's not until Cincinnati shifts the second player from trips (the middle receiver) to the opposite side of the field that one of Pittsburgh's safeties walks closer to cap the slot receiver. Now free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (39) is 7 yards inside and over the slot receiver, while linebacker Mark Barron (26) is free to blitz away from the strength of the defensive front, just like the Steelers were doing in the previous two clips. Bengals quarterback Ryan Finley doesn't catch the adjustment and gets ripped down by Barron flying unblocked off the edge.

The Steelers also switch it up every now and again to keep opposing offenses off their scent. Whether it's sending different players or not sending any at all, Pittsburgh does a good job of mixing in a few different calls into these same blitz looks.

via Gfycat

The Steelers are set up similarly in this example as they were in the previous example. However, the blitz comes from the short side of the field this time, though it's still away from the strength of the front. Pittsburgh has a safety and linebacker both sitting over the slot receiver, with the safety about 7 yards deep. As Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield gets ready to call for the snap, Edmunds creeps up to blitz through the B-gap (between guard and tackle) while edge rusher T.J. Watt takes a wide path around the offensive tackle. Barron locks into the inside hip of the slot receiver and locks him out from being able to bend to the middle of the field. As the coverage on the other side of the field holds up, Watt is able to beat his man around the edge and bring down Mayfield for a sack.

These all seem like minor tweaks, but the Steelers sent a different position, from a different side of the field, through a different gap than they usually do. That's a ton of change for the offense to take in, even if it looks the same on the surface.

via Gfycat

This time, the Steelers don't send anybody after posturing as if they were going to send the nickelback again. Instead of blitzing, Pittsburgh looks to drop into a Cover-3 look with a late deep rotation from Fitzpatrick (39) on the weak side. With the assumed blitzer coming from the strong side, Rams quarterback Jared Goff likely assumed he would have more room to work with on that side of the field than he ended up getting. Goff freezes up trying to determine where receivers are going to open up in between zones and is forced to check down to running back Todd Gurley, whom he somehow misses by a noticeable margin.

The last clip also speaks to another key pillar in Pittsburgh's defense: safety rotations. Fitzpatrick is one of the smartest safeties in the league and a quality athlete to boot, and Edmunds is among the best athletes at the position. The Steelers can get away with rotating these two all around the field before and at the snap because of how well they can move around and track moving pieces at the same time.

via Gfycat

via Gfycat

This looks to be the same coverage in two separate weeks against the Browns. In both clips, the Steelers come out in a two-high look with six defensive backs across the board. The weak nickel (bottom of the screen in both cases) starts to bail to a deep middle position just before the snap, splitting the two deep safeties on his way there. The two deep safeties then walk down to become hook defenders, while the strong nickel and the middle linebacker fan out to become curl/flat defenders. Whether you want to call it a variation of Tampa-2 or Cover-3 does not much matter to me because it functions the same way. In fact, Mayfield even gets hung up looking at the same area of the field in both clips because of the strong safety dropping into the hook area.

via Gfycat

This scheme ends up covering all the same areas as that in the previous clip, but the rotation itself is a bit different. Rather than dropping both safeties to become hook defenders while the weak nickel becomes a deep-middle player, the Steelers push their weak safety to an outside deep-third while their weak outside cornerback sits in the flat (cloud coverage). The weak nickel (Cameron Sutton, 20) rotating up then becomes part of a triangle rotation with the field safety and the middle linebacker. The weak nickel slides up to replace the field safety deep, the field safety slides down to become the strong hook, and the linebacker slides over from the middle to play the weak hook. All the moving pieces get Mayfield to believe the slot receiver breaking over the middle will be open because the linebacker slides away, but Fitzpatrick flies down and jumps inside of the route for a pass breakup.

Again, call it Tampa-2. Call it rotating to Cover-3 cloud. Diante Lee, a high school coach in San Diego, calls it 2 Slice, which he says is true Tampa-2 on one side and Inverted-2 on the other. The point is that Pittsburgh is able to manipulate the entire middle of the field -- everything between the painted numbers -- because of what their safeties are capable of, particularly Fitzpatrick.

So long as Pittsburgh's secondary stays healthy, especially Fitzpatrick and Edmunds, they will be able to ride these tactics out for the rest of the season. It's hard to imagine Josh Allen or Sam Darnold, whom the Steelers face over the next two weeks, will be the ones to crack the code. Lamar Jackson may be able to get the best of them in the regular season finale, but even Jackson already struggled against the Steelers pass defense in Week 5. Pittsburgh still has to win all these games in spite of their quarterback situation, but the pass defense will be able to hold up its end of the bargain to keep this unlikely season afloat.

Comments

24 comments, Last at 15 Dec 2019, 10:51am

1 Blitzes

I thought a lot of teams, when seeing a blitz (whether pre-snap or slightly post-snap), have a pre-built-in hot route/receiver. I don't see that on the first Arizona clip.
The only question I would have of this analysis and the clips is that, with the exception of the Goff clip (how to you miss your checkdown receiver less than 10 feet away that badly??), all of these come against rookies, backups, or 2nd year players (Mayfield). While this does not bode good for the 3 QB's that the Steelers have left to face this year, facing Mahomes or Watson in the first round might have a different outcome. [This isn't saying that the PIT defense isn't good, or that they will be shredded--just that it's easier to confuse Kyler Murray and Ryan Griffen.]

6 With respect to hot routes,…

In reply to by Joseph

With respect to hot routes, that kind of depends on the concept and how teams want to approach pressures/blitzes (which can be offensive preference or game plan specific). It's true that many concepts will have checks or built-in hots, but my understanding is sometimes teams prefer to try to block it up and keep their normal pass structure. It's often the case with RBs in check/release assignments. On that particular Cardinals play, it's possible the tight end was in a check/release to the flat, so he stayed in to block because he saw the blitzer. 

It's tough to say for certain if the TE was checking or just in a called pass pro assignment, but either way, the Cardinals have six to block six. My understanding is hots are often a response for when the defense can't match everyone off the snap *and* have a deep defender (i.e., if they line up with a deep defender and the offense puts five players into pass routes, someone underneath has to be uncovered for a certain amount of time). But the Steelers have five coverage defenders over four receivers, so everyone can be matched underneath without losing their deep defender. 

Here is an example of Georgia rushing six while LSU leave just five to block ... LSU have five players out in patterns while Georgia, only having five total coverage defenders, can't cover everything underneath immediately because they have a safety bail to the deep middle. QB Joe Burrow hits the RB out of the backfield as he slips into the vacated area where two blitzers come from: https://twitter.com/QBKlassClips/status/1204431847670730752

I hope all of my babbling has at least sort of answered your question lol. Thank you for reading! 

10 hot routes

I understand your points; some teams could get away with that, I suppose. I wouldn't want to rely on 5 or more blockers winning one-on-one very often, unless I have either an above-average line, or a multi-year starter at QB.

In the ARI situation specifically, we have a rookie QB and HC--I just can't understand why a hot route concept wouldn't be built in--even if they have enough to block it up. PIT has a good defense, a good pash rush--why isn't anybody running a shorter route? Does the HC & OC expect 6 blockers to hold up against 6 rushers? Sure, Murray is mobile--but, my goodness--have a TE or RB flare out, let the rusher come free, and flip it over his head--just like a screen pass. If they have a short defender that appears to be trying to "spy" that route, that means he isn't covering somebody else--so have an RPO-type read on that short zone/slot defender. (I'm sure some of this is more complex than it sounds, though.)

Also, to add--Fitzpatrick is absolutely someone who makes blitzes like these work. Great trade by the Steelers.

18 Wait, are you suggesting the…

In reply to by Joseph

Wait, are you suggesting the TE should just let one blitzer go free there? Dude's running near-full speed when he hits the line, and there's play-action. If the tight end doesn't pass set and block, the quarterback's flat on his back after the handoff fake.

It's just a good call against that play. You've got rushers attacking guys that aren't even pass blocking, and keep in mind, it's just an incompletion. It's really the second blitzer that blows everything up. Not much you could've done with that play in that situation.

2 Brett Kolmann coincidentally…

Brett Kolmann coincidentally has just released a video about the Steeler defense, and Minka Fitzpatrick in particular, on his Youtube channel.
Def worth a watch.

3 But, but...

But, but wait...It's common knowledge around Pittsburgh that the defensive coach is a fool, the head coach (who has great input into defensive schemes) is a dunderhead, and Edmunds is a first-round bust. Are you telling me that your careful, expert analysis is right, and the guy sitting next to me in the bar who's on his fourth or fifth beer is wrong?

11 weird man

Does that weird man still p[ost here? Fire Omar may hve been hsi name here. I rmemeber everuything bad for Pitt he blamed on M. Tomlin and anything good was not goo enough due to M. Tomlin.

5 Hopefully, the poor football…

Hopefully, the poor football fans in The Steel City will someday get to experience their favorites winning a high percentage of their games, once they no longer have such an obvious idiot as a head coach.

7 Deprived

Yes, it's a shame how we Steeler fans have had to settle for the 16th best regular season winning percentage in history, a record second only to Belichick's among active coaches, only 8 trips to the postseason in 12 years, no non-losing seasons, and a mere two Super Bowl appearances, one of which was a win. 

But, but...he's poor at clock management, we need a top coach like Andy Reid (oh, wait...)

But, but...he's not good at using challenges, we need a guy who can emulate Bill Belichick's performance last week  (oh, wait...)

But, but...he sometimes makes an inexplicable play call in the red zone, we need an offensive genius like Pete Carroll (oh, wait...)

But, but...he won that Super Bowl with Cowher's players (who went 8-8 the year before)

But, but...he blundered onto the field during a kick return (OK, that was pretty stupid.)

Yes, I think back to the glory days of my youth, rooting for Steelers teams that went 5-9, 2-12, 5-8-1, 4-9-1, and 2-11-1 in a 5 year stretch.  Why can't we have that, instead of the sadness and deprivation of our current situation? 

 

8 Well, until that idiot…

In reply to by young curmudgeon

Well, until that idiot manages to win 8 games without a HOF qb and All Pros at running back and wide receiver, those of us who are fans of other teams will laugh, like hyenas on a crystal meth binge, at your plight! 

 

HA!HA!HA!HA!HA!HA!HA!......what?......

...never mind......

14  So Tomlin is a good coach…

In reply to by young curmudgeon

 

So Tomlin is a good coach but he has the clock management of Reid, uses challenges even worse than Belichick and calls plays on crucial moments like Pete Carroll. And he adds some stupid stuff by himself.

It's funny that you add all the negatives of other coaches and add them to Tomlin and that somehow an argument that Tomlin is good.

I don't know who to credit, but before adding Fitzpatrick this defense was not very good. So I'm not going to credit Tomlin for putting together a great defense, if it wasn't so much for coaching, as it was trading for a great player in Fitzpatrick. If Tomlin recognized the talent and made/pushed for the trade, hats off to him.

 

15 I think the point is that…

I think the point is that even great coaches have flaws.

The other point is that about 25 other franchises would trade you their coach, straight up, for Tomlin, and be out of town before you could change your mind.

16 Selective reading

Well, that's as selective a reading of what I wrote as you could accomplish.  I'm glad that at least you found it "funny," one does like to entertain. 

I had hoped my point was that Tomlin has established a record of reasonable success that, on the balance, suggests that he is a good coach.  I cited some of the arguments that are often made against him, each of which has a certain amount of validity, but noted that other coaches who are highly regarded also have flaws, and that some of these parallel the flaws that are evident in Tomlin's coaching.  I'm disappointed that listing a fairly admirable (albeit not perfect) record of actual achievement, acknowledging that the person with such a record still makes blunders, and recognizing that no coach is perfect can somehow be reduced to "add all the negatives of other coaches and add them to Tomlin and that somehow an (sic) argument that Tomlin is good." 

 

17 "So Tomlin is a good coach…

"So Tomlin is a good coach but he has the clock management of Reid, uses challenges even worse than Belichick and calls plays on crucial moments like Pete Carroll. And he adds some stupid stuff by himself."

Or... or.. or... maybe all of the playcalling, clock management, challenge choice criticisms are all total garbage.

Maybe we're all judging coaches wrong, because we praise them when they do something creative that works and then we vilify them for doing something non-obvious when it doesn't work.

And maybe those plays happen like, two or three times a year, and if a team loses because of them, the team was still in a situation to win in the first place.

21 Jack Nicklaus was below…

Jack Nicklaus was below average around the green for the majority of his career. He still was the either the best or 2nd best golfer ever. No, I'm not saying Tomlin is anywhete close to being the best ever, but there is a tendency to miss the forest for the trees. In game decision making is the least important part of a NFL head coach's job.

22 He's costing them games…

He's costing them games versus your mythical, perfect coach who never loses a game (and somehow never plays against the other mythical, perfect coaches in the league - don't know how that works).

He's clearly not actually costing them games versus a typical coach. He's got a winning percentage way above average and hasn't had a losing season... wait, let me check... ever.

I'm not saying Tomlin's perfect. Holy crap, no. But if you want to find the flaws in a coach you don't talk about a handful of decisions over a year. That's insane.

19 I will simply note, yet…

I will simply note, yet again, that 78 guys have coached at least 128 NFL games, 8 years worth by the 16 game standard. 8 of them have a better winning percentage than Tomlin.

Is it possible that Tomlin is not a good head coach? Sure. Anything' s possible. The odds, however, of a guy winning 65% of his 205 games, while not being a good coach, are pretty poor, and before I hear anything about his personnel being so great, I'd like to suggest that the percentage of coaches who could successfully manage guys like Antonio Brown, or even Roethlisberger, for as long as Tomlin managed guys like that, who have about as much sense as a kicking tee, is not all that high. I know, I know, that's kind of unfair to the kicking tee.

23 Full disclosure, I was anti…

Full disclosure, I was anti Tomlin and this year has caused me to change my mind, though I agree he still has some glaring flaws.

 

If I were to play devil's advocate, you could argue that part his success is attributable to the Steelers organization. Much like Baltimore, there are some organizational advantages that seem to persist despite changes in personnel, coordinators, and even head coaches. 

24 That's also the case for The…

That's also the case for The Dark Lord of Foxboro. His way of doing things would not work with one of the league's idiot owners, even after a couple Super Bowl wins. All the great ones benefitted from good ownership, even club hopping Parcells, who, in all his travels, only had one outright moron to manage. O.K., the exception that proves the rule is Marty the Magnificent, who really should be in the HOF, who, in his many stops, dealt with not just one halfwit with cash, in Spanos, but perhaps the dummiest dummy of them all, The Dummy of D.C.. 

Tomlin may be Marty with good ownership luck. I will reiterate that the percentage of coaches who could successfully manage the likes of Brown and Roethlisberger for a long time is likely pretty darn low. And anybody who doesn't grasp, that being put on Marty's plane is a high honor, doesn't know, to quote Parcells, whether the ball is blown up or stuffed.

13 Cover-6?

To me it looks like variations on what was called cover-6 when I was learning it.

Steelers used to run it with Troy Polamalu, and they use it now to let Minkah freelance a bit.

They do it out of dime a lot so the MLB covers short under one CB while the other CB stays short. They like to put the safeties under the CBs as well, which I think they do because it's dime and they often bunch the zones around the first down line so putting Minkah, Terrell Edmunds and Mark Barron all in the shorter zone to the RB side makes sense.

The Steelers used to do a lot of cover-3 and cover-2 man and Troy could freelance while Clark would play off of it, either staying in cover-2, or being the single high safety. But cover-6 was one they would go a good bit. There's a lot more pattern matching now, and they seem to be trying to insert pattern matching into cover-2 principles and the cover-6, so the coverage can be cover-3, cover-2, cover-6, straight up zone or pattern matching.

Also, one of my favorite ploys with Butler's pass rush is Barron faking that outside rush and covering the RB in man. There was a play against the Bengals where the O-Line bought the Barron fake blitz so hard that both TJ Watt and Hargrave came through on a stunt and there were 2 OL looking to block Barron while he was dropping to cover Chubb. (Week 12, 2nd qrtr, 0:32)